BY JONATHAN SILBERMAN AND CAROLINE BELLAMY
LONDON - Strikers at LSG Skychefs have called a rally at the plant gates May 3. They are appealing to trade unionists and supporters to demonstrate their solidarity with the struggle against the airline catering company, which is now in its fifth month. The strike by 278 members of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) at Heathrow airport, which began November 20 in opposition to company attacks on working conditions, has become a battle over union rights.
The strikers have received many expressions of solidarity - visits to the picket line, participation in rallies and in a demonstration, invitations to speak to labor organizations, and thousands of pounds in donations.
The strike is especially significant for airport workers. There are 30,000 TGWU members at Heathrow, the largest of London's three airports.
Skychefs workers at Gatwick airport are also resisting attacks on their conditions. TGWU members at the Gatwick plant rejected a package of proposed measures, including annualization of hours, 10-hour shifts, and one-man loading on trans-Atlantic flights. In a secret ballot, they voted by 324 to 24 against a company offer of a 1 percent wage rise and an additional 3 percent if they agreed to the new terms.
One worker reported that he anticipates losing L 3,000 per year ( L 1 = US$1.6) in overtime pay if the annualization of hours proposal goes through. "It's not just the money but the whole uncertainty of how many hours we'll work and when: one week it could be 52, the next 30," he added. Workers at the plant reported company intimidation as the bosses sought to push the proposals through. They showed big interest in the Heathrow strike, snapping up leaflets and buying copies of the Militant along with packs of Militant articles on the strike.
TGWU members at Alpha, another airline catering company at Heathrow, have also overwhelmingly rejected a package of measures that include a new 12-hour shift pattern. Despite a recommendation by union official Alan Green to accept the package, the workers voted overwhelmingly against it.
News of the votes by the Skychefs workers at Gatwick and the Alpha workers boosted the Heathrow pickets. Striker Surjit Lehat, who has worked at Skychefs for 17 years, said that conditions at Heathrow and Gatwick have been similar. "We voted against annualization of hours about 12 months ago. Now the company is trying to divide us up by getting it adopted at Gatwick during our strike. The fact that they've rejected it is great news."
Two workers from Skychefs in Paris, members of the Force Ouvriere union federation, visited the Skychefs picket line March 18. They brought solidarity from the workers at the Paris plant, where 1,000 workers are employed.
"Their visit has been a big boost to the strikers," said strike leader Garth King. "They are resisting moves by Skychefs to erode conditions at the Paris plant in much the same way that they've done here," reported King, who traveled with union official Green to Paris to first make contact with the French unionists. The two also visited Madrid, where a meeting was held with representatives from the unions at three Skychefs plants in Spain. Skychefs strikers have also traveled to Germany and the United States.
Caroline Bellamy and Jonathan Silberman are members of the TGWU.
Skyschefs Pickets Will Fight Strikebreaking Frame-Up
Skychefs strikers and supporters will rally outside Feltham court at 9:45 a.m. May 13 in support of picket Parmjit Bajwa. He is set to be tried that day on trumped up charges of threatening behavior and common assault.
Police claim Bajwa assaulted a strikebreaker, Anmol Gill, by grabbing him by the collar and tie and shouting at him in an aggressive manner on the picket line December 23.
Bajwa, who has worked at Skychefs for five years as a driver/leading hand, is a picket line activist. He denies the allegations and points to significant omissions and lies in the witness statements of Gill, and of policewoman Tracey Miller.
"They are lying," he told the Militant. "I was one of about 30 pickets. We shouted `scab' at him [Gill] and then he came back to us and started swearing in Punjabi and threatened to `sort us out later.' I said, `Why later, let's sort it out now,' and he ran to the police." Police vans or cars are permanently stationed in the Skychefs forecourt, behind the picket lines. Gill returned with the police and pointed to Bajwa as the man who had allegedly assaulted him. Bajwa continued, "The policewoman said then that she saw me grab him by the throat. She was lying; she was sitting in the police van and the tent would have stopped her seeing anything. Anyway, if she had seen something, why didn't she come over straight away?"
In her witness statement, Miller changed her story, saying that Bajwa swore and shouted threats at Gill as she approached the strikers' tent. Miller embellished the story claiming that the "increasing aggressive manner of the remaining pickets [made me] concerned for my own safety."
"This isn't true either," said Bajwa. "We were chatting when they called me out." Gill's statement makes no reference to the initial threats he made to the strikers.
The local press and Despardes, a Punjabi paper with a worldwide distribution, have covered the case. In an attempt to smear the strike, "they made me look like a criminal. Despardes even included my address in the article," Bajwa said.
- CAROLINE BELLAMY & JONATHAN SILBERMAN
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